CSI: Caravaggio: The cold case gripping the art world

400 years after one of Italy's finest artists vanished, DNA tests could finally solve mystery of his death. Michael Day reports from Milan

It's the cold case gripping the art world in Italy and beyond. Forensic scientists armed with the latest DNA technology may be on the verge of solving the mystery surrounding the death of one of history's most colourful and enigmatic geniuses.

The Baroque's great anti-hero, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, died, according to which version of events you believe, alone from malaria on a windswept Tuscan beach, cut down by the Knights of Malta, or more prosaically, in a hospital bed.

But his body was never found, and in the intervening centuries, elaborate theories have proliferated, fuelled by fascination with the mercurial painter's lifestyle as much as his extraordinary artistic skills. The Caravaggio we read about, the tempestuous and sexually ambiguous brawler with a conviction for murder, has left an indelible mark on the imagination as well as art history.

Now, however, in the 400th year since his disappearance, researchers from the universities of Ravenna and Bologna have prepared DNA tests on the corpses in a Tuscan crypt that many believe contains the painter's remains.

They have already narrowed their investigation down to nine corpses, which have been sent to Ravenna for carbon-dating. Tests will look for evidence of malaria, and typhoid, another big killer before the advent of antibiotics, as well as evidence of the heavy metals present in oil paint.

The scientists hope to compare the DNA samples from the crypt with relatives of the painter who are alive today. Researchers have looked for possible descendants in the northern town of Caravaggio, near Milan, where he grew up. Some of the people tested have derivations of the Merisi family name. Caravaggio died childless so the team looked for the painter's closest living blood relatives in search of a match.

"We have carried out DNA tests on some individuals who have the same surname as Caravaggio, that is Merisi, whom we think could be genetically linked to the great painter," said Professor Giorgio Grupponi. "We'll then compare their DNA with that of the remains."

The scientists are also working with 60-year-old Silvano Vinceti, who although lacking forensic qualifications, still boasts impressive credentials in medieval detective work.

Mr Vinceti exhumed what was left of Dante Alighieri and enabled the digital reconstruction of the face of the medieval author of the Divine Comedy. He has also announced his intention to dig up Leonardo da Vinci, with the aim of debunking the popular theory that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait. But in the meantime he scents blood with Caravaggio. "I'm following my instincts. You've got to have a nose for these things," he told The Wall Street Journal.

One theory, recently revisited by Vincenzo Pacelli, an art historian at the University of Naples Federico II, is that Caravaggio was killed by the Knights of Malta with the Vatican's unspoken approval, after it had convicted him of murder in 1606.

Caravaggio is said to have dispatched his victim with a wound to the groin after a tennis match. It is debated whether the argument was over a disputed point, an unpaid debt or a love rival. Following the killing, Caravaggio fled Rome and ended up in Malta, where he joined the knighthood. But within less than two years he had been expelled after attacking another knight. He made his way back to Rome hoping to obtain a papal pardon, with the help of powerful friends in the city. But he never arrived.

Many academics believe disease killed the painter. Reports dating from the 17th century said he collapsed at Feniglia beach near Porto Ercole. Other reports, included one written on parchment supposedly by a local friar, say he died at a local hospital and was buried in the cemetery of San Sebastiano. In 1956 the corpses from the cemetery were moved to a crypt at the nearby municipal cemetery. It is here that the researchers have been looking for the painter's remains.

Should they find a DNA match, the publicity would fuel what is already being called Caravaggio-mania in Italy. To mark the 400 years since his death, a national committee has been formed to co-ordinate celebrations.

Festivities kicked off in February with a blockbuster show at the Scuderie Del Quirinale in Rome, which contains 24 of Caravaggio's greatest paintings, including loans from New York, St Petersburg and Florence. The exhibition's curator Rossella Vodret, said the event had been almost immediately sold out for the first month, and was "destined to beat all records", with queues of hundreds of people forming every day.

But the painter wasn't always so popular. In Rome during his lifetime, the prevalent mannerist painters, trapped in ever-decreasing circles by their veneration of the High Renaissance, were shocked by Caravaggio's sensual realism, which portrayed grime as well as beauty.

As a result Caravaggio got many of his biggest commissions in Naples, Malta and Sicily – cities further away from the shadow of Raphael and Michelangelo. When he died in 1610 aged just 38, pundits soon wrote off his revolutionary use of contrasting light and dark, chiaroscuro, although his work would influence the later giants Rembrandt and Velázquez.

But now the tables have turned and one expert suggests there's evidence that Caravaggio has replaced Renaissance giant Michelangelo at the top of the unofficial Italian art charts. Philip Sohm of the University of Toronto, who studied the number of publications devoted to both artists during the last 50 years, found that since the mid-1980s the Baroque painter has started to nose ahead of his Renaissance rival.

Professor Rose Marie San Juan, an expert in Baroque painting at University College London, told The Independent, that Caravaggio was "the artist who's come to mean the most to us in the last 30 years".

"I think it's because he's so modern in many ways. His painting is so knowing. The way he tells familiar stories in unpredictable ways, without the moral black and white we saw before, really appeals to us."

An artist's impression: Caravaggio

Born: Michelangelo Merisi, in Milan, 29 September 1571

Early life: The family moved to Caravaggio in 1576, the reason for his name. The son of an architect, he was apprenticed to a pupil of Titian's at the age of 13. In 1592 he fled to Rome after wounding a police officer in a brawl.

Career: Known for his rare naturalism and use of chiaroscuro, paintings of Saint Matthew gained him great acclaim in 1600. Despite lifelong fame – and notoriety – he sunk into obscurity after his mysterious death, only for his reputation to revive in the 20th century.

He said: "All works are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles ... unless they are made and painted from life."

They say: "He reclaimed the human figure, moving in deep space in all its pathos and grandeur, as the basic unit of art ... there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same." Robert Hughes, critic, in 1985.

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